American Studies ETDs

Publication Date

Spring 5-1-1975


This examination of twenty-one popular motion pictures proceeds from the hypothesis that audiences tend to accept as true that part of a movie story which is beyond their experi­ence. Early film portrayals of prisons can be shown to have been less than accurate in many cases, whereas some recent films, as well as what have been termed "post-Attica" writings, have begun to explode many of the myths surrounding America's penal institutions -- myths engendered by movies such as those examined in this study.

The aims of the research were to make a descriptive study of the screen portrayals of prisons and prison inmates in popular feature films of the 1930s, to examine the themes and stereotypes that are common to many of the films, and to compare specific aspects with historically accurate references to prisons during the period. Arguing that motion pictures are valid evidence in the examination of twentieth-century American society, the overall approach of the study is neither that of the film critic nor of the penologist, but rather of the student of American popular culture, whose purpose it is to examine and record not the "real" world, but what people believe about the real world.

The films examined include three dealing with chain gangs--Hell's Highway (1932), l Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), and Road Gang (1936); ten films depicting men's prisons--Numbered Men (1930), 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1933), Over the Wall (1938), You Can't Get Away with Murder (1934), Jailbreak (1936), San Quentin (1937), We Who Are About to Die (1936), Alcatraz Island (1937), Blackwell's Island (1939), and Each Dawn l Die (1939); three films set in women's prisons -- ­Ann Vickers (1933), Ladies They Talk About (1933), and Girls on Probation (1938); three reform school films -- The Mayor of Hell (1933), Crime School (1938), and Hell's Kitchen (1939); as well as two other, less significant, films -- Two Seconds (1932), and Hold 'Em Jail (1932). A brief synopsis of each film is included, and the study contains forty-two represent­ative photographs--frame enlargements--from the films. Also included is an annotated filmography of 217 prison movies produced between 1921 and 1975.

Document Type


Degree Name

American Studies

Level of Degree


Department Name

American Studies

First Committee Member (Chair)

Charles D. Biebel

Second Committee Member

Joel M. Jones

Third Committee Member

Gordon A. Mack

Fourth Committee Member

Robert Edward Fleming